San Francisco City Hall

Welcome to the City Hall of San Francisco!

A City Hall is the chief administrative building of a city, town, or other municipality. It usually houses the city or town council, its associated departments, and their employees. It also functions as the base of the mayor of a city, town, borough, or county or shire. As symbols of local government city and town halls have distinctive architecture, and the buildings may have great historical significance. City Hall buildings may also serve as cultural icons that symbolize their cities.

San Francisco City Hall is the seat of government for the City and County of San Francisco, California. The city hall of San Francisco is one of the country’s most magnificent Beaux-Arts buildings. It is an enormous building, occupying two city blocks. Its central dome is even taller than that of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. The city hall’s grandeur was a reflection of the growing importance of the city of San Francisco. It is a Beaux-Arts monument to the City Beautiful movement that epitomized the high-minded American Renaissance of the 1880s to 1917. The structure’s dome is the fifth largest in the world – taller than that of the United States Capitol by 42 feet.

The history of the San Francisco City Hall dates back to early 20th century. The present hall is actually a replacement for an earlier city hall. The original San Francisco City Hall was completed in 1899, after 27 years of planning and construction. This building was actually even larger than the one of today. It also included a smaller extension which contained the city’s Hall of Records. However, the old city hall only lasted 7 years, before it was completely destroyed during the 1906 earthquake.

Reconstruction plans following the 1906 Earthquake wanted the building’s design and plans to work with a noted city planner and architect Daniel Burnham’s plan to rebuild the city, and in particular, the Civic Center complex in a neoclassical design as part of the city beautiful movement, as well as a desire to rebuild the city in time for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. A design competition for the new building was organized. The winner was the noted architect Arthur Brown. Brown is the man who designed the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, Veterans Building, Temple Emanuel, Coit Tower and the Federal office building at 50 United Nations Plaza.

Brown had previously attended design schools in Paris, which clearly inspired him. The dome of this city hall is very similar to the one of Les Invalides in Paris. Brown focused his design on classic elements, like a large portico and several Doric columns. The interior design is also in a classic way, featuring beautiful walls and ceilings with marble floors and elegant lanterns. Brown’s attention to the finishing details extended to the doorknobs and the typeface to be used in signage. Brown’s blueprints of the building are preserved in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

The cornerstone of the city hall was laid in 1913 and the building stood completed two years later, just in time for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition. The first meeting in City Hall chambers was held on October 9, 1916.

The main rotunda had also served as the location of many prominent state funerals. General Fredrick Funston, hero of the Spanish-American War, Philippine-American War, and the 1906 Earthquake had his there in 1917. Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were married at City Hall in 1954. Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated there in 1978, by former Supervisor Dan White.

On October 17, 1989 an earthquake of magnitude 7.1 hit San Francisco, damaging the City Hall. Its dome had moved four inches and cracks appeared in the wall. A thorough renovation, completed in 1999, not only repaired the damage; it also restored the building to its original splendor and made the building seismic-proof. This was achieved by isolating the building from its foundation by installing an isolation layer of rubber and steel discs under the building. The layer protects the historic building by absorbing the seismic shocks. City Hall reopened after its seismic upgrade in January 1999, and was the world’s largest base-isolated structure at that time.

The city hall has attempted to recruit peregrine falcons to nest in aeries outside the dome. Pigeon droppings have to be periodically cleaned from the pair of glass-covered light wells that were covered with concrete at the height of modernism. In a curious coincidence, the new city hall in nearby San Jose has already drawn at least one pair of falcons, discovered by Mayor Ron Gonzales himself as he saw pigeon feathers descend past a window during a meeting.

In May 1960, the main Rotunda was a site of a student protest against the House Un-American Activities Committee and a countering police action whereby students from UC Berkeley, Stanford, and other local colleges were fire hosed down the steps beneath the rotunda. This event was memorialized by students during the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley four years later.

In 1978, the San Francisco City Hall received a special award from the American Institute of Architects. It was awarded as one of the finest examples of French Renaissance architecture in the country.

The original grand plaza has undergone several extensive renovations, with radical changes in its appearance and utility. Prior to the 1960s, there were extensive brick plazas, few trees, and a few large, simple, raised, and circular ponds with central fountains, all in a style that discouraged loitering. The plaza was then extensively excavated for underground parking. At this time a central rectangular pond, with an extensive array of water vents was added, with extensive groves of trees. In the 1990s, with the rise of the problem of homelessness, the plaza was once again remodeled to make it somewhat less habitable – although the most significant change, the replacement of the pond and pumps with a lawn, could be reasonably justified on the basis of energy and water conservation.

Martha Cohen, director of Special Events, has added color changeable LED lighting to the outside of the Rotunda, & between the exterior columns. The colors change to coincide with different events happening in the City, Bay Area & World.

The size and architecture of the City Hall are impressive. In front of the city hall is a vast open space, covering more than 46,000 square-meters. The building as a whole contains some 7,900 tons of structural steel from the American Bridge Company of Ambridge, Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh. It is faced with Madera County granite on the exterior, and Indiana sandstone within, together with finish marbles from Alabama, Colorado, Vermont, and Italy. Making the city hall this large was intentional as it was supposed to reflect the growing importance of the city of San Francisco.

The Rotunda is a spectacular space and the upper levels are public and handicapped accessible. Opposite the grand staircase, on the second floor, is the office of the Mayor. Bronze busts of former Mayor George Moscone and his successor, Dianne Feinstein, stand nearby as tacit reminders of the Moscone assassination, which took place just a few yards from that spot in the smaller rotunda of the mayor’s office entrance. A bust of former county supervisor Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in the building, was unveiled on May 22, 2008. While plaques at the Mall entrance memorialize President George Washington’s farewell address and President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the primary themes of the statuary are to the past mayors, with the dates of their terms in office. The medallions in the vaults of the Rotunda are of Equality, Liberty, Strength, Learning and, as memorialized in the South Light Court display, Progress.

The building has also been featured in dozens of movies. One of them is the James Bond movie “A View To A Kill” from 1985. Other films that feature City Hall include: Foul Play (1978) and Milk (2008).

Today, the whole San Francisco civic center is considered a National Historic Landmark District and the City Hall is the crown jewel in the collection. Ever since its construction, it has been considered one of the best examples of American fine architecture. The building is almost always open to the public and is definitely worth a visit.


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